The Scottsboro Boys
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 6, 2010
I told someone I was seeing The Scottsboro Boys, the newest musical by Kander & Ebb, and she looked at me sort of quizzically and said, "new"? It is indeed the case that lyricist Fred Ebb died in 2004, and so this material is obviously at least several years old—and in terms of style and form, the musical is very much a throwback to the heyday of this particular musical partnership, bearing strong echoes of both Chicago (1975) and Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993). But The Scottsboro Boys has never been seen in full production before, so it qualifies as a premiere. And it's unlikely that we'll see very many other new musicals this season as well-crafted and spectacularly professional as this one.
The Scottsboro Boys takes as its unlikely inspiration the 1931-37 trials of nine young African American men in Scottsboro, Alabama (an excellent account of which can be found here). In the show, the outline of the story goes like this. All of these men happen to be riding in the same boxcar on a train from Chattanooga, Tennessee. When a commotion breaks out, two young women—Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, a pair of hookers—save their own hides by falsely claiming that these nine "boys" raped them. The men are immediately arrested, thrown in jail, and convicted in a travesty of a trial in which they are represented by an incompetent and drunken attorney. Help comes from the North, in the form of lawyer Samuel Leibowitz, who gets the original verdict thrown out and leads the "boys" through a series of new trials. Justice, such as it is, proves difficult and slow to deliver for the Scottsboro Boys.
The musical uses the framing device of a minstrel show to tell this sad and shameful story. At first the device worried me, but with only one exception, it's applied in a consistent and valuable way. John Cullum, as formidable and forceful a presence as ever, serves as Interlocutor for this particular minstrel show, and his repeated call "Gentlemen, Be Seated!" becomes the sturdy spine of The Scottsboro Boys. Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon take the other roles from a traditional minstrel show, the end men Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, respectively; dressed in garish, mismatched checks and plaids that contrast joltingly with Cullum's all-white suit, they take a variety of roles in the play as it unfolds (McClendon plays Leibowitz, for example). At some point early on, I realized that all of their characters are white men, which makes the minstrel concept feel rather choice, subverting the original by turning it on its head.
The actors who portray the Scottsboro boys also take various supporting roles, most notably Christian Dante White and Sean Bradford, who are splendidly memorable as the two young Southern "ladies" who are the boys' accusers. (Their musical number, "Alabama Ladies," is a show-stopper and the finest piece in a score that's truly top-notch).
There is one woman in the cast of The Scottsboro Boys—Sharon Washington plays "A Lady" who is the very first person we see on stage in this musical (and also the very last). She's almost always silent; sometimes she feels like our guide into this story, a person from outside the tale and its time period to help us process the show and what's in it for us to discover. And sometimes she feels very much part of it, a universal mother figure to all of the men, in particular Haywood Patterson, who in real life and here is the central figure among the Scottsboro Boys, as the one who most vocally protests his incarceration for a crime that never happened, and as the one most bent on escape, restitution, and redemption.
Washington proves wonderful in her role, as indeed are all of the men who are her co-stars. Brandon Victor Dixon is memorable at the show's center as Haywood. The other "boys" are portrayed by, in addition to the aforementioned White and Bradford, Josh Breckenridge, Kendrick Jones, Julius Thomas III, Rodney Hicks, Cory Ryan Wise, and Derrick Cobey.
Kander's music sounds terrific as orchestrated by Larry Hochman and played by eight musicians led by musical director David Loud. The show's technical credits are fine—a versatile unit set by Beowulf Boritt, appropriate costumes by Toni-Leslie James, evocative lighting and sound by Kevin Adams and Peter Hylenski.
At the helm of The Scottsboro Boys is Susan Stroman, providing a polish and a slick showmanship to the proceedings that make this the most well-put-together and, in its way, most traditional new American musical in years, maybe even decades; with authors Kander, Ebb, and David Thompson (who wrote the book), we are in as sure a set of hands as its possible to be, and it shows in every minute of this piece. That said, Stroman's work doesn't always fit as perfectly on the material as it might; there is, for example, a climactic dance performed by Dixon and Washington (he in the foreground, she as his shadow) that is dazzling and virtuosic but nonetheless jarring: the subject matter makes us want to pull back from sheer entertainment, but that's what Stroman provides us here, whether or not it's entirely appropriate.
But that's a quibble; see The Scottsboro Boys if you can, if you're interested in the art of the American musical or in the ways that even our relatively recent national history offers important lessons worth (re)discovering. Kander and his late collaborator may not be quite unleashing the lightning that was Cabaret or Chicago in The Scottsboro Boys, but history repeats itself over and over; there's something to learn here that may help us keep it from repeating itself forever.